Room 401

Room 401

A Story by Lina Rivera

Sometimes you have to go against your heart to do the right thing.



            Marco had done well for himself and Alicia had heard all of the stories through the grapevine and social circles of her so called friends. She missed him, but she would never say that to them because they would tell her that missing him was the most ridiculous thing in the world. So instead she listened to the gossip, and sipped on her lemonade, and adjusted her bikini top so that she’d get a semi-even tan.
            “He owns a store at Valley Hills,” Julia said while watching her boyfriend do a back flip into the pool off the low diving board.
            “What kind of store?” Amanda asked with arms behind her head as she watched the activity around the hotel pool.
            “One of those home furnishing stores. I bought all these nice scented candles and saw him at the store. He looks good.”
            “Marco always looked good,” Amanda said with a smile. “Right Lici?”
            “Hmm?” Alicia asked as she pretended to have been more interested in the pool activities than in the conversation.
            “Personally I always thought he was a little weird looking,” Julia offered. “Too tall and thin for my liking.”
            “So did you talk to him?”
            “I did. I asked him about the wife and kids and he said everyone was doing really well.”
            “How many kids does he have now?”
            “Two. He showed me a picture, and they look so cute.”
            Alicia tuned out the rest of the conversation and let her mind drift back to her neatly kept memories. Back then Marco had barely noticed her, older by a few years he had only seen her as a little sister really. Nothing more, nothing less. His girlfriend, Carla, was her babysitter and she would braid Alicia’s hair while laughing and talking with Marco on the phone.   Sometimes he would actually visit to hang out with Carla and he would play Monopoly and Twister with her while Carla got lunch ready for Alicia and her younger siblings.
            Alicia looked at Julia who was looking at her with a bright smile, an all too knowing smile. “Yeah?”
            “Are you coming in to the pool with us?”
            “Oh, uh, I think I’m going to head back to the room and take a nap. Too much sun.” Alicia got up under the scrutiny of her friends and headed back to the hotel room they had rented out for their spring break vacation. As she changed into a sundress she thought about the day that she had finally let Marco know how she had felt about him.
            It had been the last day before he left to college and she had run to his house in the pouring rain. When she had gotten there he had quickly let her in and offered her a towel and hot cocoa. He had asked her with a smile what she had been doing running around in the rain like that and she had been honest and told him that she wanted to see him before he left because she liked him, because she had liked him forever.
            He had mistaken her profession of love and had said he liked her too, and that he’d definitely be back to visit his little sis in the holidays. She had cried that night, but she cried harder a few years later when she had found out that he and Carla had gotten married. She had tried to forget him over the years, but nothing worked. Boyfriends of her own, studying late, working part-time, nothing kept her mind off of him.
            Her thoughts were what led her to her car and leaving the safety of her spring break destination to the unknown that awaited her. She drove straight to the Valley Hills Mall without a single detour, and she walked straight to the store that she knew he owned without allowing a single thought to talk her out of whatever it was that her feet were carrying her to. She kept her eyes open and glanced around at the people in the store as she pretended to shop, checking out vases and picture frames, looking at price tags of various candle holders and finally picking up a beaded purple pillow off of a bed on display.
            “That one’s on sale,” came the voice behind her and she smiled as she turned around and her saturated blue eyes met the soft glow of his own. “Alicia?”
            “Marco. Wow. How are you?”
            His smile was contagious and lit up the room, as it always did. “I’m good. How about you? Wow, I haven’t seen you since…forever.”
            “Yeah, it’s been way too long,” she said a little quietly, and held the pillow a little tighter to her chest needing the support. “I’ve been good. I’m on spring break.”
            “You’re in college now? It’s been that long?”
            “I’ve been in college. I actually graduate this year. And yes, it’s been that long.”
            “Wow time flies.” He laughed a little as he scratched the back of his neck and a million mental images flowed through her mind at that moment of him doing the very same action whenever he was getting ready to cut a conversation short.
            “It does, but…how are you?” She flushed a little pink when she realized she had already asked him that and hoped he just humored her.
            “Good, real good. Business is good.”
            “You own this place?”
            “Yeah. What do you think?”
            She smiled and nodded, “It’s very cool. I was looking at your picture frames they’re really cool.”
            “We just got new styles in today. I’ll ring you up a discount when you’re ready to check out.” He looked ready to bail so she brought up the one thing she had really wanted to avoid.
            “Great. So, how’s Carla doing?”
            His smile waned a little, but he managed to keep it as he nodded, “Oh she’s doing really good. She’s at home taking care of the kids.”
            “How many kids do you have now?”
            “Two. My son is three and my daughter is nine months.”
            “That’s so cute.” She really did think it was cute, but she was also saddened by it since it served as another reminder of why she’d never have him.
            “Hey, yeah, that reminds me that your friend Julia came by the other day. I hadn’t seen her in forever either.”
            “Oh wow. Small world.”
            “It is,” he smiled again and looked at his watch. “Well I’ve got to run to a vendor meeting, but it was really great seeing you. You should come by the house if you get a chance. I know Carla would love to see you again.”
            Alicia nodded and promised she would and bought the pillow as a memento of that moment.
            “This will only lead to trouble,” Julia had warned her a week later, but Alicia hadn’t listened. She was determined to accept Marco’s invitation, even if it was under the pretense of catching up with Carla. She got ready in a simple blue dress, but one that still managed to be sexy in a subtle way. Her blonde hair with highlights of various shades was left loose, and she picked simple hoop earrings to complete the look. When she looked at herself in the mirror she almost felt a pang of guilt for taking advantage of the situation, but in the end, as she walked out the door, she figured she didn’t really have anything to lose.
            What she expected when she arrived at Marco’s home was one thing, what she had gotten was something entirely different. She had always remembered Carla as a great babysitter. Responsible, well put together, organized and ahead of the game, but this modest one story home that Marco and Carla shared was anything but. It was the home of someone who had once decorated with care, who had let it go over the years, and who had cleaned up quickly because someone was coming over. There were toys thrown towards a corner, papers loosely piled on top of each other carelessly on a side table, milk and baby food stains on the carpet and the slight odor of dirty diapers lingering amidst the air freshener scent.
            The biggest shock, however, came when Alicia actually saw Carla. The young, vivacious, carefree girl with the full head of straight brown hair and the spring in her step, now looked old and downtrodden. Her hair was stringy and dyed a blonde color that had obviously been too harsh for her once thick hair. Her face was worn, and even though still in her twenties, she looked like she was well past her age. Her body was still thin, but looked out of shape, and Alicia could only smile and give her a hug and wonder if it was all caused by becoming a mother, or if something deeper was poisoning the water in their household.
            “I told Marco that I was going to make you peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like I used to.”
            Alicia laughed at that and looked towards Marco who was watching the scene as he bit his thumbnail and smiled a little crookedly. “I used to love your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When you left for college I used to try and recreate them but they weren’t the same.”
            “Aww, see, honey, I told you I should’ve made them.”
            He nodded, “I guess so. I figured you’d grown out of that by now.”
            “No one grows out of good PB&J,” Alicia joked and she followed Carla to the dining room where plates had been set for them. She spotted a little boy peeking out from the kitchen wall and Marco went over to him and picked him up, tossed him over his shoulder, and twirled him around which caused the little boy to giggle.
            Alicia smiled then looked at Carla who bit her lip as a small smile crept onto her face at the scene. When Marco stopped and put his son down the smile left and she turned her attention back to Alicia. “You can sit wherever you like.”
            “Oh, maybe I’ll sit in this one,” she said purposely picking the seat with the booster chair and the little boy ran to it and put his hands territorially on the booster shaking his head.
            “No! Mine!”
            Alicia made a surprised face and pointed to it, “But I fit in here too.”
            “No you don’t!” he said with a laugh.
            “Let’s see,” she pretended to sit in it and the little boy laughed more as she grumbled about not being able to sit in it. “Oh well I guess I’ll have to sit somewhere else.”
            The boy laughed again and quickly climbed onto his chair before she could get anymore crazy ideas about sitting in it. “I see you learned all of my tricks,” Carla said with a soft laugh.
            “I was paying attention,” Alicia answered with a smile as she sat across from the small boy.
            As he passed his son to his own chair at the head of the table, Marco kissed the small boy’s head and rubbed it. “His name is Joel.”
            “Hi, Joel.” Alicia said with a little wave across the table.
            “Hi,” he said back with a little wave before turning his attention to the colorful, plastic blocks he had in front of him.
            Carla went into the kitchen to get the food and Marco looked at Alicia with an amused smile. “I can’t believe how grown up you are.”
            “I couldn’t stay a little girl forever, Marco,” she said as she gave him a solid look. It didn’t matter if he wasn’t a mind reader. She had learned how to give the right clues. A desperate act of running in the rain would not be misinterpreted the second time around.
            “I know,” he said looking at her with contemplation. “I know.”
            “I made chicken casserole,” Carla said coming back into the dining room with the casserole dish in hand.
            “It smells delicious,” Alicia said fixing her paper napkin on her lap as she watched Carla set the dish down.
            “Go ahead and dig in while I get the rest,” she said as she put a small helping on Joel’s plate so he could get started. She gave the serving spoon to Alicia and went back to the kitchen.
            Alicia put some on her plate and handed the spoon to Marco, making and keeping eye contact for a moment before relinquishing the spoon. He took it and hesitated before serving himself some as well. “So, Alicia, what are you majoring in?”
            “Civil Engineering, and I’m minoring in Greek mythology for fun.”
            “Wow, that’s really impressive. You an engineer.”
            She laughed, “I always liked to build things.”
            “It’s true,” Carla said bringing in a mixed salad and some rolls. “I remember you used to spend more time playing with Lego’s than Barbies.”
            “Lego’s were more fun, right Joel?” Alicia asked the young boy who nodded his agreement as he held onto his plastic block tightly with one hand and his spoon with the other.
            Carla laughed and went back to the kitchen, coming back with a bottle of fruit punch for them. Alicia tried some of the casserole and smiled at Carla with widened eyes. “This is sooo good. You are so the best cook.”
            Carla smiled with embarrassment, “I’m glad you like it.”
            Alicia ate a little more before continuing the conversation. “So what did you guys major in?”
            “Business management,” Marco answered.
            “Makes sense,” Alicia said, then she looked at Carla.
            “I majored in Journalism, which definitely did not prepare me for being a stay at home mom.” She laughed wryly having meant it as a joke, but even as Alicia chuckled along she knew that Carla wasn’t too happy with the way things had turned out. Again, Alicia felt the pang of guilt and for a moment she wondered if maybe she should just leave right then and there before Julia’s words became reality.
            “So that’s why you always watched the news!” Alicia said and Carla nodded with a laugh.
            “I’ve always loved watching the news. Now I don’t really get a chance to watch anything other than cartoons.”
            “Oh but cartoons are fun,” Alicia said with a laugh.
            “It is,” Carla agreed and Alicia looked over at Marco who was looking down at his plate, eating quietly. “So how are your brother and sister doing?”
            “Really good. Stephen started college last fall and Tara is a junior in high school.”
            “Little Tara in high school? Oh my God I feel old,” Carla said shaking her head.
            “It’s amazing how they’ve grown up,” Marco said looking up and smiling at Alicia.
            “Just think, one day Joel will be in high school,” Alicia said and Marco groaned.
            “I’m not ready for that.”
            “I definitely don’t want to think about that,” Carla said with a laugh.
            “Where’s the baby?” Alicia asked suddenly remembering that there was another child.
            “She’s sleeping which is amazing. I imagine she’ll be up at any moment,” Carla said looking at the wall clock.
            “Wow, you are so good at this mom thing,” Alicia said looking at Carla in amazement. “But you were always good at it. You were like the best babysitter ever.”
            Carla nodded with a broken smile and looked towards Marco, “I suppose I sealed my fate.”
            “Mommy, it’s ice cream time.”
            Carla looked at Joel’s plate and shook her head, “You have to finish eating first.”
            “But I want ice cream.” The three-year-old pouted and Alicia found herself smiling at how much he resembled Marco.
            “You’ll get ice cream after you eat.”
            “Ice cream now.”
            Carla looked at Marco for some sort of help and he smiled at his son. “Joel, don’t you want us to eat ice cream together? I’m not done yet.”
            Joel nodded and picked his spoon up again, “Okay, daddy.”
            Alicia watched the interaction with great interest then noticed Carla look at Marco with annoyance and exhaustion, she returned to her meal, taking a few bites before addressing Alicia again.
            “So are you seeing anyone?”
            “Not at the moment. I just got out of a very crazy relationship,” she said rolling her eyes.
            “Crazy?” Marco asked.
            “He was a Philosophy major so we had a lot of major-based conflicts.”
            “Well that’s too bad,” Carla said. “I’m sure there are some nice catches in the civil engineering major.”
            “They’re all geeks. Literally,” Alicia said with an ironic laugh. “No, I’m just focusing on graduating and getting my career started at the moment.”
            “That’s a very good plan,” Carla said and Alicia was left feeling awkward at the table.
            She was very glad when the night finally came to an end. Though how it ended left things more open than she had even hoped for. As Carla went to give their young daughter, who had indeed woken up during dinner, a quick bath, Marco had walked Alicia to her car.
            “It was nice that you came by,” he said holding the door open for her.
            “It was nice to come by. It brought back a lot of fond memories.”
            “I like fond memories.”
            Alicia just looked at him with a small smile, “You look good, Marco. Real good.”
            “So do you, but you knew that.”
            “I try.” She laughed a little and he just shook his head with a smile.
            “In my head, you’re still that little girl that liked board games, but…you’ve grown up to be a very beautiful lady.”
            “In my head, you’re still the hot guy that you were then…that you are now.”
            He bit his lip and looked towards the house then back at her, “I should get back inside. Make sure Joel’s not tearing the place up while Carla’s giving the baby a bath.”
            She nodded and got into her car and started it. He began closing the door then quickly opened it a little and peeked his head in. “Let me give you my cell phone number,” he said and quickly rattled it off to her when she was ready to take it down. “If…you need anything just give me a call okay?”
            She smiled at him and let her eyes look right into his. “I will.”
            He nodded and closed the door and stood in the driveway as he watched her leave.
            She wanted to call him right away, but the guilt inside of her kept her from making the call so soon. However, it did not stop her completely and once again Julia was by her side telling her that nothing good would come out of it.
            “It’s just lunch, Jules. Lunch between friends.”
            “Lici, listen to me. I’ve known you for like ever. This isn’t you. The Alicia I know wouldn’t do something like this. Please, just…think before you act.”
            Alicia had rolled her eyes and brushed Julia off, leaving their apartment on a direct trip to the Valley Hills Mall. She had dressed in a light and breezy short skirt with a button down shirt leaving the top three buttons undone. She strolled into his store with purpose and smiled when he spotted her and smiled back and told his employee that he’d be out for lunch. He walked up to her with his hands in his pocket.
            “Very ready.”
            “Chinese sound good to you?”
            “It sounds more than good.”
            They walked together to the restaurant by one of the major department stores and were seated towards the back and by the window where Alicia could observe the mall patrons getting out of their cars and entering their long day of shopping.
            “It’s good to see you again,” he said after they had ordered and she took a sip of her green tea and nodded.
            “It’s very good to see you again. I’m glad you agreed to lunch.”
            “Well…I do have to eat. I might as well have good company while I do it.”
            She nodded with a chuckle and continued the meaningless banter. “How’s the store treating you today?”
            “It’s not so bad. Just awaiting the next big shopping holiday like every other retailer. How’s school treating you?”
            “I had two tests this week so my brain is a little fried.”
            “I can imagine. Actually I can’t imagine. I don’t think my business tests were as hard as whatever yours are.”
            She smiled at him and they continued to talk about trivial things before his cell phone went off. The frown on his face spoke volumes and she watched him intently, deducing from the conversation that he must be speaking to Carla.
            “I don’t know what time I’ll be home,” he said and Alicia scooped more fried rice onto her plate. “Yes, I know, but I have to oversee inventory. No, I don’t think so. Well I’m sorry but my job is important, too. We’ll talk when I get home. Now’s not a good time. Just no.” He hung up and looked at his plate, cursing softly beneath his breath.
            “Carla I take it?”
            “She…” He shook his head and ate a little more, obviously not in the mood to really finish his lunch.
            “Marco,” Alicia treaded, “When I was at your home I could sense something was wrong. What’s going on? I’m your friend. You can talk to me.”
            He looked up at her and put his fork down, taking a moment to compose his thoughts. “Things just haven’t been the same since…well since Joel was born really.”
            “No, it’s not like that. It’s not his fault at all. It’s just…Carla becoming a stay at home mom was never really part of our plan. She was going to be a journalist. I was going to work my way up through a big company, you know, we were pursuing the typical American dream. But then, once Joel was born she just…wanted to stay home. At first I supported it, of course, but I thought for sure she’d go back to working. She didn’t though. And I mean, I support her decision, but…it’s not the Carla I married. It’s not…the way things were supposed to be.”
            She looked at him a moment and put her hand on his, “It’s going to be alright, Marco. You’ll figure things out.”
            He looked down at her hand on his and seemed to think for a long while before looking back up at her. “I’ve been cheating on her.”
            Alicia’s eyes widened slightly, but only for a moment, “Oh…for how long?” She didn’t even consider removing her hand from his.
            “Two years. Our daughter is a product of a night of full on guilt.”
            She folded her hand around his, holding onto it tightly. “Who with?”
            “You don’t know her. She’s a sales rep for a company I do business with. We always meet at the same hotel. We both have keys.  Room number 401. No questions asked, no baggage enters, no baggage leaves. It’s just sex.”
            Alicia nodded and looked at him, slowly seeing the man that she had been wanting since forever, shatter into little pieces. It didn’t take her long to realize why he was sharing this with her, but she didn’t pull away her hand. Now she held it as a true friend would, and she let go of her flirtatious airs and set forth her role of supportive friend.
            “Does she know?”
            “She suspects. I mean emotionally she knows, but she hasn’t caught me yet. I know this isn’t right. I know this isn’t fair to her. I know I’m wrong on so many levels, but it’s just not the same anymore between us. I don’t know what to do.”
            She bit her lip and the truth of Julia’s words hit her suddenly and hard. She knew what she had to do, but before she jumped in with two feet, she needed to know where she stood. “Marco, when you agreed to this lunch, what were you thinking would happen?”
            “I…I don’t know.”
            “You do know.”
            He looked almost ashamed as he spoke to her. “I found myself attracted to you. I thought maybe…God, I’m such a horrible person.”
            “You’re not. Listen to me, Marco. You’re not a horrible person. I gave you all the signals. I want you, I wanted you, I’ve wanted you since the days you’d come over and play board games with me. Who is more horrible? The man who acts out because he is lost or the woman who pursues the lost man when he’s at his most vulnerable?”
            He shook his head, “How about the man who was ready to take advantage of the girl who has had a crush on him forever just to make himself feel alive again?”
            She took her hand away at that moment and looked at him with confused eyes. “You knew?”
            “No girl runs in the rain to tell a boy goodbye unless she felt something for him.”
            She stayed silent for a moment and averted her eyes towards the window, “I knew you couldn’t be that stupid.”
            “You were just a little kid back then. I thought it was cute.”
            “It was obviously a little more serious for me.”
            “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”
            She looked at him and shook her head with a small smile. “You didn’t hurt me. You just gave me something to aim for. Something to pursue. I cried when I heard that you had married Carla.”
            “I loved her.”
            “You still love her. You wouldn’t be feeling all this guilt if you didn’t. And you know what? I care about Carla too. That’s why I’ve changed my mind. I came here today with the intention of having you, but now…. I didn’t like what I saw at your house. That’s not the Carla I knew. She’s sad, she’s worn out, she’s falling apart. Let me help you fix it.”
            “Why? Why would you want to? You could have me. I’m telling you now that you could have me.”
            “Because…because I want you to be happy, Marco. And as long as you have this guilt inside of you you’re not going to be happy. I’m a strong girl. I don’t need you to ensure my happiness. But Carla…she needs you.”
            Marco put his hand to his face in despair and nodded slowly.
            When Carla called Alicia crying and begging her to come to the house, Julia’s first reaction was, “Oh God, Lici, what did you do?” But Alicia knew why the phone call had been made, and upon arriving at Marco’s home, she quickly ran to the door and rang on the doorbell desperately.
            “Carla, talk to me,” Alicia said when the girl had opened the door, face completely red and covered in tears and tear stains. Carla led her to the living room where she cried some more before finally divulging information.
            “I knew he was cheating on me. I knew it.” She sniffled and choked back tears and found the strength within her to continue. “He asked me if my mom could take the kids for the evening so we could talk. I knew it was going to be bad, I just never expected him to just…tell me.”
            “Oh, Carla,” Alicia said rubbing her friend’s arm. “It’s good that he did.”
            “This isn’t the life I wanted. This isn’t the life I dreamt of. When I envisioned Marco and I living happily ever after it was in a nice home, with two kids and two wonderful careers. The mistress, the nights away from home, the lies, it wasn’t a part of it. And I’ve spent all this time since he told me trying to figure out what I did wrong. How did I push him away? What did I do to make him stop loving me?” She cried again and Alicia held her, rubbing circles in her back, and feeling tears of her own start to surface. But this wasn’t her battle to fight, so she closed her eyes so the tears would go away.
            “You did nothing wrong. He just gave up on what you guys had. Now it’s time for him to reclaim it, for both of you to reclaim it. You can have your happily ever after, Carla, I know it.” She let go of her and looked at her, helping to wipe some of her tears.
            “I kicked him out. I didn’t know what else to do. I’m not even angry, I’m just so sad. I just want him back and I want to make him happy somehow. The only time I see him happy anymore is when he’s playing with the kids. I know he loves his kids so much, what’s it going to take for him to love me too?”
            “He does love you. Listen to me, he does love you. Don’t ever doubt that for a second. He just has to remember that he loves you. He has to remember why he married you in the first place.”
            “I think it’s too late.”
            “It’s never too late.”
            With those words, all Carla could do was cry some more, and when she had cried herself to sleep, Alicia placed a blanket over her and looked at the broken girl for only a moment before leaving. As she drove, she knew exactly where Marco was, and that was where she was headed.
            She knocked on the door to room 401 and waited patiently for him to open the door. When he did, his face was red and tear stained as well, and he left the door open for her to follow him in. She closed it behind her and sat beside him on the bed where he was sitting on the edge just looking down at his hands.
            “I’m proud of you.”
            “I think it’s over.”
            “It’s not over. It’s just beginning.”  He was silent for a moment longer and she put her arm around him and sighed. “She wants to know what she did wrong. She wants to know what she did that made you stop loving her. She blames herself for all of it.”
            “She’s not to blame.”
            “Maybe partially she is. Maybe there was something, and maybe you need to tell her what that is so she can work on that.”
            “It started when she stopped being happy. It started when she was mentally blaming me for ruining her dreams. I don’t even know why she thought that. I always encouraged her to work. I told her that we could hire a babysitter, but she said it was too early. I just…I don’t know exactly what happened.”
            “Then that’s what you need to talk about. It’ll work out.”
            He looked at her with curious eyes, “Why are you helping us? What about you? Where does this leave you?”
            “Newsflash, you’re not the only hot guy on the planet.” She smiled and shrugged a little, “I’ll be fine. Carla was always so good to me. She played with me and my siblings, she cooked for us, she knew how to fix booboos and how to make even the news interesting for us. She cared about us and this is the least I can do for her. For you guys.”
            He let a tear fall and quickly wiped it away, “That…you’ve just explained why I fell in love with Carla in the first place. She was always so good to people. She cared. She’s a good person. You made this decision because she influenced you in such a positive way. We both could’ve ended up here, in this room, having sex, and instead you convinced me to come clean, and I actually did. That’s all her. That’s the amazing person she is.”
            Alicia loved seeing the sorrow on his face change into hope as he realized once more who the woman he married truly was. “Marco, this isn’t going to be easy. She won’t make it easy because she’s been wronged, and a wronged woman can’t make it easy. But if you want to make things easier for yourself, then remember to run in the rain to her. Do something that only true love could make you do.”
            He nodded and gave her a hug, and weeks later, Carla had indeed taken Marco back. Julia had been so proud of Alicia that she had offered to do all the chores in the apartment for a week. “Plus I set you up on a blind date.”
            Alicia groaned and hid behind her lab book.
            “None of that, you are going to like him. I promise. He’s a nerd just like you. Astrophysics.”
            “I’ve met all the Astrophysics majors. They’re all geekier than the ones in my major.”
            “You’ll like him. I promise.”
            Alicia just shook her head, but inside she was smiling at her friend. Maybe she would, and if she didn’t, she’d be just fine.

© 2008 Lina Rivera

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Added on May 20, 2008